Power of The People

The Bay Area honors the Black Panthers

Misfortune is a test of people’s fidelity.

Those who protest at injustice are people of true merit.

― Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide 

From 1966, when the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, until it was disbanded in 1982, it established itself as a power in Black communities across the U.S. Now, the time for recognizing the Panthers’ true legacy may finally be here.

Oscar buzz abounds for Judas and the Black Messiah, which portrays not only the betrayal and assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, but also his co-founding of the Rainbow Coalition, which fought poverty, corruption, police brutality and substandard housing.

Here in the East Bay, a proposal for a more comprehensive and more permanent record of Panther history is gaining traction.

Spearheaded by Newton’s widow, Fredrika Newton, and the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, cities throughout the Bay Area are signing on to a resolution asking the National Parks Service to conduct a “reconnaissance survey,” identifying sites and monuments that would be linked together in a national monument. The resolution also urges the Biden Administration to act on the findings of the survey. Resolutions have already passed in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, with San Francisco and Sacramento expected to follow, according to Newton.

The Berkeley resolution, placed on the city council agenda by council member Terry Taplin, states in part that the party was “founded in response to the wide-spread poverty, lack of economic and educational opportunities, and police oppression experienced by the African American community in Oakland, California…Pervasive and unrelenting police terrorism directed at communities of color during the 1960s made necessary the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.”  

The resolution goes on to cite the BPP’s work creating “survival programs” aimed at providing food, healthcare, legal assistance, transportation and other services to Blacks and other people living in poverty.

In 2016, the 50th anniversary of the BPP’s founding, news outlets acknowledged, for example, that in January 1969, members of  Oakland’s St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church and the BPP created the first “Free Breakfast Program for School Children” in the nation, eventually feeding 20,000 children across the U.S. and becoming a model for today’s federal school breakfast program.

These pictures of the Panthers stand in stark contrast to the one promulgated by members of the Johnson and Nixon administrations of the BPP as armed and violent domestic terrorists.

The National Parks Unit envisioned by Fredrika Newton would resemble the blueprint of Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park. Rather than just a museum, the monument would encompass multiple sites, and in this case, multiple cities. “The Foundation has established a non-exhaustive list of sites that would showcase the Party’s historic role in advancing African American civil rights in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area,” Newton said.

The Foundation has requested reauthorization of the $98,000 grant previously approved from the National Park Service to conduct the Black Panther Party Research, Interpretation and Memory Project. “It’s not clear when or if that will happen, “ said Newton. The grant was approved by the Obama administration and was “withdrawn abruptly by the Trump administration,” she said.

Rep. Barbara Lee supports the effort to establish a National Parks Unit. “She spoke on the House floor recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Party, and she is currently spearheading the request for the reconnaissance study,” Newton said.

Berkeley’s 3106 Shattuck Avenue, San Pablo Park and Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, and Richmond’s 5th and Chesley, site of a Free Breakfast Program, would be included in the monument, among other sites.

In Oakland, de Fremery/Lil’ Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Merritt College and numerous other sites would join the newly designated Huey P. Newton Way, a three-block section of 9th Street near Mandela Parkway, and artworks such as the new West Oakland mural celebrating the women of the BPP, painted on the back and side panels of resident Jilchristina Vest’s home.

SISTERHOOD  A mural depicting women of the Black Panthers adorns the back and side panels of Oakland resident Jilchristina Vest’s home.

One block away, a bronze bust of Huey Newton, sculpted by Dana King, will be installed later this year. The Cleveland-born artist, now an Oakland resident, noted, “as a product of public education, I did not discover the truth of the Panthers until I was grown.” 

The three-foot bust was modeled with input from Fredrika Newton, who “laughed and cried” with King while advising on how to capture a ’70s Huey Newton at his physical peak. King considers the piece important in sparking conversations about the real history of the BPP. If the National Parks Unit becomes a reality, she believes telling the story will help “the next movement to grow out of it.”

Fredrika Newton is well aware of how important to Oakland, the Bay Area and the nation the monument could be. “Storytelling is so important to connecting to the history and the truth,” she said. “Museums and monuments are catalysts for incredible storytelling.”

She cited schoolchildren going on a field trip and experiencing learning and understanding. “When people visit Oakland, we want them to learn about the Black Panther Party, become immersed in the truth of its legacy and understand the important historical contributions of the Party,” she said. “A National Monument will serve that purpose.”

As the U.S. grapples with how to fully recognize its past and transition to a more just society, “I believe this is one of the places where we can move the needle on systemic racism,” she said.

Terry Taplin’s letter to the Berkeley City Council supporting the resolution points out that many Black political leaders in the East Bay trace their history of activism to the community organizing of the BPP.

“While racism persists in our society, so, too, does the inspiration of those who fought back, fed their families, clothed their children and healed the sick,” he wrote. “Memorializing their struggle for freedom is one way we can ensure their unfinished work continues.”

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